A Critical Impasse

Working from the premise of Derrida’s contre, the relationship developed between these texts is not so much textual as countertextual: each text re-enacts the procedures of its counterparts, simultaneously rearticulating and interrogating their status. In this triangular mode of reading, the contact zone between the countertexts becomes the site on which new readings are generated, readings that use the ambivalent relationship between writings to mark an analogous self-difference within writing itself.

Contingincies and Masterly Fictions: Countertextuality in Dickens, Contemporary Fiction and Theory.


It is easy to lampoon. Pseuds Corner in Private Eye Magazine is a treasure trove of constructivist gems; University Prospectus’s jostle for space among corporate memos and design manifestos. In his recent, gloriously high-minded essay in the Aeion, Roger Scruton, bemoaning the modern culture of fake scholarship, gave his own example;

…it is the connexion between signifier and signifier that permits the elision in which the signifier installs the lack-of-being in the object relation using the value of ‘reference back’ possessed by signification in order to invest it with the desire aimed at the very lack it supports.

In this case it is Jacques Lacan. It is hard not to be swept up, Paris ’68 style, by the revolutionary tide of Latinate verbiage. I remember my own response at university to a comment from a tutor, reassuring her that I appreciatized  her point. Despite this momentary appreciation, I developed difficulties with the spirit of the course, a knot evolved in my stomach at the thought of writing the essays, before hardening into a position of post-adolescent defiance. I simply didn’t understand the course.

For those who read slowly, an English Literature degree is a sedentary experience. I vividly remember reading Wilkie Collins’s ‘Woman in White’ from start to finish throughout a day that started at 7am and finished at midnight. The book and I endured long sessions, with only a couple of breaks for the student equivalent of a meal. It was an extremely enjoyable experience, sitting on the bed next to the radiator, the rain tipping down outside. With so few distractions I was able to engage fully with the twists and turns of the plot and develop a relationship with the characters. I felt confident enough to discern certain faults in the writing style; one hundred or so pages from the end Collins becomes just a little too concerned with his rapid plot machinations at the expense of the style he has so carefully built upon.

It was with a huge amount of shock that I sat down at the tutorial the next day and discovered the book was actually about a menage a trois. How could I have missed this? Did some prudish Victorian censor tear out the graphic sex scene from my copy of the novel? No, I was being too literal. A symbolized menage a trois. The tutor selected her reasons, all of which stacked up, all of which seemed reasonable as she explained them at length, while I imagined what the symbol for a threesome might look like, perhaps some variation on naked Twister. By that point in the course I knew there would be an essay question coming, and I would have to discuss the latent sexuality in Woman in White, a sexuality I hadn’t even known was there until I had had it pointed out.

Because reading a book is by definition a solitary experience, there is something disconcerting about discussing it. Rather like other solitary experiences, we can’t quite grasp the idea that others might be doing it too, and so discussion often centres on which bits everyone liked and to which characters the readers were most empathetic. My rainy day of reading had been a relatively profound experience and had left its residue, and it felt sobering to have the novel so deracinated.

There is an extremely good argument that the study of English Literature is not an academic subject. Presumably, one could counter that the study of English Literature is only an academic subject. Edinburgh University is proud to house the oldest department of English Literature in the world, having first offered courses on ‘rhetoric and belles lettres’ nearly 250 years ago. That puts it relatively late compared with other academic disciplines in the UK, and certainly by comparison to Law, Medicine or Theology.

As the study of literature has developed, its scope has broadened and its reach is now thoroughly global. Universities give B.A. undergraduates a fleeting overview before pressing them down into microscopic research patterns. Here are some of the modules available to students at Cardiff University;


·         Global Literatures

·         Contemporary Identities: Race, Gender and the Self in    Contemporary British Fiction

·         American Dreaming: Suburbia, Literature and Culture

·         Writing Women in the 20th and 21st Century

·         How NOT to read a book: a survey of contemporary literary criticism


As a consequence of the great ambition of most English courses, a language had to be developed that could unify the many strands a study of literature might bring into play. After all, a study of books is in reality a study of the contents of books, and surely the scope of a novel is uncontainable? What axiom would allow a student to explore such an unbordered world? Luckily, the French were on hand to first lasso meaning and then label it. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Guy Debord and Louis Althusser, the influence of these thinkers changed the study of the Humanities in the second half the 20th Century. Derrida, for example, was of the opinion that Western thought from Plato onwards laboured under the illusory promise that language was capable of capturing a reality beyond language. He was pessimistic about the meaning of what we say or write, explaining that it is alwaysundecideable, struggling to take shape, tumbling and tearing in a battle of ‘differing and deferring.’ Foucault, co-opting Marx, reduced this battleground of meaning still further to the binary forms of the oppressed and the oppressor.


This deconstruction of ‘the inherited order’ became the Modus Operandi of analysis and university syllabuses to this day pay homage to its reductive forces. Derrida’s critique, so sexy and bound up in the world view of the 1960’s, undoubtedly contained an internal, structural logic, and could often be very useful; there is an old Indian saying that there are 360 different ways to look at an elephant. In fact, as a technique, deconstruction has many merits, the problem comes from its ubiquity. Not least of its advantages is that deconstruction benefits from a dexterous approach to added syllables, a pleasing concomitance of prefixes and suffixes. At University I would occasionally note down some of the compound lexemes thrown into a lecture. 50% of them were unlisted.


Advances in Literary Theory developed alongside Deconstruction. Rather than enter into the novel, Literary Theory refers not to the meaning of a work of literature but to the theories that reveal what literature can mean. In other words, the theory deals with the tools by which we understand literature. Or rather, I would say some of the tools. It is literary theory that formulates the relationship between author and work, lays out themes and classifications, develops the significance of race, class or gender in a novel, and investigates the role of linguistics or the unconscious in a text. (The novel is often reimagined as a text.)


These techniques are as valid as each other, no more, no less. How useful they are depends entirely on what the theorist sees as the function of the inquiry and once the dissection of the patient has been carried out, the remains are filed away on the shelf with the other body parts. For the literary theorist no text is ever dissociated from its author or context. The battle over Josef Conrad’s soul is a good case in point. In a famous essay in 1974 “An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Chinua Achebe identified and highlighted the many signs and symbols of Conrad’s latent and not so latent racism. Achebe’s ‘reading’ of the text gained some currency. Essays were fired off in defence of Conrad, amongst them Caryl Phillips, who suggested that Conrad was in fact attacking the racism of colonialism. Very few chose to read the text only as a metaphorical journey or an inner exploration, but an interpretation like this is impossible if the reader refuses to disentangle the novel from its surroundings, from its time and from its author.


Of course interpreting the metaphors in Heart of Darkness may only be the result of indistinct writing, of a failure in the construction of the novel in the first place.The drawbacks of this approach are, for all but the most pedantic, that it drains some of the pleasure from a novel, what should be the collaboration between two creative people; writer and reader. This partnership, I suspect, is the reason why the novels of Vladimir Nabokov prove so instructive to so many writers, Nabokov is always making the reader work. I have a friend who when he first bought an Ipod, when they were very new, rearranged the tracklisting. He carefully relabelled both the names of the tracks and the artists, giving them new titles as he saw fit and inventing exotic names for the singers. Of course, he discovered he was powerless to talk about his musical tastes because there was no one else with his frame of reference.


Similarly, a while ago, when I still went to the Cinema, I developed a habit of entering a film screening with absolutely no prior knowledge, without having seen a poster or read a review. The pleasure lay in the total lack of prejudgement or context, it felt like a purist’s approach. To begin with I’d pick the film with the best title but after a while I’d experiment by just asking for a ticket to the film on Screen 3. I saw the film ‘Festen’ this way, a movie with many twists of the plot including a surprise announcement at a family function. This development at least would have been given away by the previews. It was the purity of experiencing a genuinely unknown progression that was uplifting. When we pick up a novel, any novel, but especially a classic, we have some idea of what it is about.


What is hidden by academic approaches is the human dimension and the exploration of human experience. As early as 1922, TS Eliot was wryly humorous enough to publish a second volume appendix to the Wasteland in which he explained all the mysteries inherent in the first volume. His essay, one would assume, is a less valid approach than that of a critical annotation. Where would his essay stand in the pantheon of essays on the wasteland? How much insight did Eliot have? Was it a joke? That Eliot’s creative faculty had a role to play in the construction is rarely acknowledged, at least beyond the idea that his creativity was influenced by material factors such as his nationality or his gender.


To the young litterateur there are several options. The basic approach would appear to be read, read. read and then write. It is a model that has worked well for generations. There are variations: read, live, write is another, whilst read, live, write, live is also popular. Mario Vargas Llosa, who has won the Nobel Prize, says that he alternates between reading and writing so regularly he can no longer tell what he is doing at any one time. Martin Amis, who hasn’t won the Nobel Prize, divides his life, in equal measure, to reading, writing and living. It is unclear where sleeping comes in this scheme. William Faulkner’s tripartite formula was experience, imagination and observation. Some people, harassed and harried by parents, find themselves enrolling on an English Literature course.


With the exception of academia, there is no route through to the labour market that would benefit from a specific English Degree. It could even be argued that an employer may see English Literature, often the choice of an undergraduate less certain of a career plan, as a disadvantage. The student prospectus of the Open University lists popular career paths as; ‘advertising, marketing, journalism, publishing, copy-writing and a wide range of other roles in the media and other creative industries.’ We can assume that the publishing option they suggest is likely to be publishing someone else’s novels.


There is, however, a post-graduate course that is proving increasingly popular with students who view writing as a sensible career plan. The University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Programme was founded in 1970 by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, shortly after the foundation of the university itself. The M.A on offer was the first of its kind in the country and took the belief that; ‘there are a good number of young (and not so young) writers of originality and potential who would welcome the chance to develop their work on a postgraduate course within a university which emphasized the importance of contemporary writing.’ The original brief has expanded to include research (for which scholarships are available) and, in 1995, a B.A programme. Importantly, students operate in workshops, rather than seminars or tutorials. This distinction colours much of the criticism of university creative writing programmes, the discipline of English is seen by many academics as the critical study of literary forms rather than the creation of literary forms.


Perhaps, in response to these criticisms, university creative writing has expanded to include creative and critical writing and UEA, for one, ensures that ‘practice and critical understanding develop in tandem.’ The University also boasts of its connections and has hosted Nobel Winners Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch for interviews at its year-round international Literary Festival. The courses offer the student contacts with agents, publishers and important connections in the world of theatre and television. The prospectus sums up the type of student who would most benefit from its tuition; ‘those whose work is self-aware rather than instinctive.’


The question of whether writing can be taught is one that will never be satisfactorily answered. Opponents of Creative Writing programmes might cite Shakespeare, Chaucer, Proust or Faulkner, to name but four random scribblers without a degree as examples of an untutored creative impulse at work. This would disregard the potential greats whose talent lay dormant because it was not harnessed. There is also a supposition in this argument that the creative writing student aspires to greatness rather than just completing a manuscript. The University of Iowa in the United States has produced sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners, but rather than selling this achievement, it has a refreshing explanation on its online prospectus;


‘this success, we believe (is) more the result of what the students have brought here rather than what they have gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.’


Courses such as these have earned the invective of many of those who reached the summit without climbing apparatus. Writing in the New Yorker Louis Menand claimed creative writing programmes are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. Menand reserves his bile for the workshop process, identifying these courses as unacademic;


‘People who take Creative Writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree on the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense – a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff then sit there while strangers tear it apart.’


Critical theory and creative writing degrees have their amateur equivalents; the reading group and the writer’s retreat. The first experienced a brief fashionability a few years ago, prompted initially by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and then Richard and Judy’s British version. A fictional T.V series followed which placed the book club firmly in cozy suburbia and crystallized in the public’s imagination the link between novels, living rooms, and extra-marital sex, with plenty of wine thrown in. There is a nice circularity in this – the same associations might have sprung to the mind of a Victorian in response to the notion of reading a novel – by the mid-nineteenth century the novel was perceived as vulgar, gossipy and strictly for women. The immediate currency of the book club is that without the trappings of critical apparatus, the book club reviewer must take an avowedly, and unashamedly humanist approach to a novel; ‘I like this because of how it made me feel’ or, ‘this chapter reminded me of my childhood.’


The popularity of book clubs has had a large impact on publishing and the exposure lent by Richard and Judy could send sales into the stratosphere; Monica Ali and Audrey Niffenegger’s careers took off after kind reviews on the sofa.


Advertisements for summer writer’s retreats in the London Review of Books are traditionally placed next to that of the Infidelities introductory service. ‘A room of your own, inspiring surroundings, good food and the company of other writers.’ ‘Has life become stale and routine? Get back that special spark.’ This is not to belittle the services that any of these groups provide, but it does illustrate how a communal approach to literature appreciation and craft, as well as relationships, can be conducive environments. It also suggests that to many the environment in which to most effectively write is not a natural one and proposes the notion that something must change to precipitate creativity. Of course, identifying a want is not quite the same as fulfilling a need. Both the L.R.B and the Times Literary Supplement carry advertisements for short and long term letting of writer’s homes, as if the very perspiration seeped into the soft furnishings might be sufficient to encourage, or even transmit creativity.


Such veneration also exists on a greater scale. Fidel Castro insisted on turning Hemingway’s home into a museum, which would presumably have mystified Papa. Hemingway, rather than living in aspic saw museums all around him. Speaking of his voluminous reading he said; “They were a part of learning to see, to hear, to think, to feel and not feel. The well is where your juice is.” Hemingway was able to recognize the utilitarianism of novels and equally their didacticism. Perhaps it is wrong to classify the various collusions with literature, perhaps Hemingway, Derrida and Richard and Judy share a single motivation, as yet undefined but no less real for that. They are searching for something they don’t know, something elliptical that they can’t explain and literature is in a position to give answers. In Matthew Arnold’s eyes culture is “to know the best that has been said and thought in the world” but has the study of literature been organized to be of greatest use? There are answers in literature, but it can also ask the most perceptive questions, give and teach. There is a layered richness in writing that comes out under the microscope of engagement that is missed by Literary Theory. Literary Theory cannot analyse the forms of creativity. It is that engagement that we will look at in the next chapter.